The first-ever aircraft on Mars, Ingenuity, is preparing for its first flight on Jezero Crater. However, its somewhat simple look is to adapt to the Martian environment and propel it off the ground. In fact, it’s a design that took long to develop because flying on Mars is difficult. Here are 4 of the challenges the Mars Helicopter will face on the red planet.
1. Mars’s Atmosphere is Really Thin
Let’s start with the main problem that causes the other issues we’ll cover today: the Martian atmospheric pressure. In fact, the Martian atmosphere is less than 1% as dense as Earth’s atmosphere.
Remember that airplanes rely on the atmosphere? Well, this creates trouble for an aircraft flying on Mars. Due to the thin atmosphere, it has to spend way more energy to generate the same lift. Ingenuity’s blades need to spin faster than 2,537 rpm to take flight!
2. The Aircraft Needs to Be Lightweight
Despite having to spin very quickly to generate enough lift, Ingenuity is extremely light. It weighs less than 2 kilograms on Earth! However, there’s an advantage: Mars’s surface gravity is only 37.5% that of Earth’s, giving more room for its fuselage, power source, and electronics. That means Ingenuity weighs about 675 grams on the red planet. But keep in mind that the limits are still tight and flying on Mars is still difficult.
Why don’t we extend the capabilities of the blades to compensate for this difficulty? Well, there is also a limit, to be explained in the next section.
Therefore, if future aerial missions are sent to Mars, the instruments will be very light and packed very closely unless there’s a more efficient way to generate lift in those conditions. Remember that Ingenuity is just a technology demonstration and has no instruments but weighs more than one kilogram on Earth.
3. Its Blades Cannot Spin Faster than the Speed of Sound
Unfortunately, there is a limit on how fast the blades can spin. It can’t exceed the speed of sound, or it will create too much drag. That will increase power consumption significantly and make some weird aerodynamics.
Additionally, due to the lower density of the Martian atmosphere, the Mach 1 on Mars is slower than Mach 1 on Earth. Therefore, the speed limit has just gone narrower. Consequently, it limits the mass of the aircraft if they use the same design. The only way out is to find a way to generate more lift or make the instruments smaller and more compact.
4. It Must Survive the Cold Weather on Mars
Additionally, Mars is very cold. Its average surface temperature is -63 Celsius and temperatures can go down to -140 Celsius at a minimum! That’s because Mars has a hard time trapping heat. The atmosphere is simply too thin.
The craft has to survive at night, so there is a heating system powered by its batteries. Why don’t we use RTGs all day? It can provide 24/7 heating without a break! Unfortunately, an RTG (Radioisotope Thermal Generator) is too heavy to fit into a light Mars helicopter. Therefore, it has to use solar power and batteries. The batteries cannot be recharged during the night, which can be a problem if the aircraft takes flight.
How short-lasting is the battery supply? Well, it cannot last for more than 25 hours with its heater on. What’s more, the heater must be turned on 24/7 since the electronics need to keep warm to work. Thus, after the end of the deployment process, Perseverance must drive away from Ingenuity as soon as possible to prevent Ingenuity from being unable to recharge its batteries.
So, here are four reasons why flying on Mars is very difficult and needs a lot of creativity to be accomplished. And this list does not account for the challenges of reaching the Martian surface, which is incredibly hard. Are there any more points on this list? Leave that in the comments below.
All in all, we hope that Ingenuity will successfully fly for the first time on April 8. Remember the clever design behind the scenes whenever Ingenuity passes through a milestone!
References and Credits
- Sean Potter. (2021, March 24). NASA Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Prepares for First Flight | NASA. Retrieved March 25, 2021, from https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-ingenuity-mars-helicopter-prepares-for-first-flight
- (2021, January 21). 6 Things to Know About NASA’s Mars Helicopter on Its Way to Mars. Retrieved March 25, 2021, from https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/6-things-to-know-about-nasas-mars-helicopter-on-its-way-to-mars
- Aristos Georgiou. (2021, March 24). NASA’s Mars Ingenuity Helicopter Set to Fly for First Time – Here are the Obstacles It Faces. Retrieved March 25, 2021, from https://www.newsweek.com/nasa-mars-ingenuity-helicopter-first-flight-obstacles-1578353
- Jennifer Leman. (2021, February 20). Meet the First Helo on Mars: A Deep Dive Into What Makes Ingenuity So…Ingenious. Retrieved March 25, 2021, from https://www.popularmechanics.com/space/moon-mars/a35353442/ingenuity-mars-helicopter/
- (n.d.). Mars Facts | All About Mars – NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. Retrieved March 25, 2021, from https://mars.nasa.gov/all-about-mars/facts/
- (2021, March 23). NASA Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Prepares for First Flight. Retrieved March 25, 2021, from https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/nasa-ingenuity-mars-helicopter-prepares-for-first-flight
- (2021, March 24). NASA will attempt first off-world flight in early April. Retrieved March 26, 2021, from https://phys.org/news/2021-03-nasa-off-world-flight-early-april.html
- ElderFox Documentaries. (2020, August 9). Why The Mars Helicopter Won’t Fly at Night – YouTube. Retrieved March 26, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QpLsUdBJMCo